30 Aug 2021

Resumption of Parliament: Parties take a stand over sitting

5:48 pm on 30 August 2021

Te Pāti Māori and the Green Party have said they will not attend Parliament while Wellington is at alert level 4, meanwhile ACT says the prime minister is using public health for political purposes.

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Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

ACT and National refused to have Parliament sit virtually, opting instead to have a limited number of MPs in the House.

It came after Parliament was suspended for a week on the advice of Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield and the request of the prime minister, during the second week of alert level 4 restrictions. The first week at alert level 4 occurred during a recess, when Parliament was not scheduled to sit.

The suspension prompted criticism from opposition parties, who said it showed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wanted to avoid scrutiny.

Under the newly resurrected Parliament, just 10 percent of MPs will be present. It means five MPs for Labour, three for National, one from Green and one from ACT.

Green, Māori parties sit out level 4

Green co-leader James Shaw said the party would appear on Wednesday, when Wellington had dropped to alert level 3, but was still "reluctant".

"The health advice is for everyone to stay home and keep in your bubble so that we can slow the spread of the virus ... that includes essential workers if they're able to work from home, so in our view politicians should be reinforcing the health advice rather than exempting ourselves from it," he said.

"Even though we are classed as essential workers, we do - like teachers - have the option of working from home and there's a perfectly serviceable option that would enable that."

He said with ACT and National refusing to have Parliament sit virtually, the party would be required to participate under level 3. They would not have their Auckland-based MPs travel to the capital, instead having just one Wellington-based MP attending each sitting day.

"I think it's absolutely irresponsible, I mean it literally risks people's lives by holding an in-person Parliament," Shaw said

"You've got to remember that whilst there might only be 12 members of Parliament sitting in the debating chamber, each of those MPs has a bubble at home, they've got people they connect with on the way to work, there are staff members who have to come into Parliament now who otherwise wouldn't have to.

"All of this is to have a question time that will have a lower level of scrutiny over the government than a virtual system allows for."

Te Pāti Māori also said it would not attend Parliament at level 4. In a statement, co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said there was no reason parliamentary business could not be conducted via Zoom.

"We will not allow National or ACT to dictate what oranga looks like for us and so we will not be travelling to Wellington in level 4 conditions this week."

Co-Leader Rawiri Waititi said it was reckless for National and ACT to intentionally disregard expert advice, "for the sake of egos and politicking, and we are concerned that the prime minister is allowing for them to make this determination on their own and put us all at risk of taking Covid back to our vulnerable communities."

With both of the party's MPs outside of Wellington, and unwilling to travel, it seems likely they will not return to Parliament for some time.

ACT stands up to Ardern

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had sent a letter in protest after ACT and National's refusal to have Parliament sit virtually, but in his response ACT leader David Seymour said her application of the rules was inconsistent.

"I was sorry to read you're disappointed that ACT does not believe Parliament over Zoom would be a suitable substitute. We believe the people deserve a proper parliament. Your letter goes on to say that you are 'acutely aware that we should not ask of others what we aren't willing to do ourselves.' I couldn't agree more," he wrote.

He noted that the daily media briefings under level 4 were in a much smaller room with more people than Parliament would have, and said only one staff member would be required to be at Parliament - the Clerk of the House.

"I further note that your enthusiasm for Zoom meetings did not extend to re-establishing the Epidemic Response Committee, despite practical proposals being put forward ... it appears you are not consistently in favour of accountability using Zoom.

"I'm afraid there is nothing more disappointing than your inconsistent application of the rules, denigration of Parliament, and tiresome protesting when you are going to show up because you know it poses less danger than things you're already quite happy to do."

Seymour wrote that ACT was disappointed "that you have tried to use public health for political purposes, asking Parliament to do what you are not prepared to do yourself".

He told RNZ there were protections in place, and democratic scrutiny was more important now than ever.

"I'll be double vaxxed, masked, I've been in Wellington for two weeks, there will be no travelling, and I'll be asking questions on behalf of New Zealanders that they deserve answers to."

He said staff did not need to come in, and what was important "is to be physically in the chamber asking questions. Anyone who's used Zoom knows that it's not the same as meeting in person".

"You don't get the same results as meeting in person. If the Prime Minister's going to have in-person meetings and staff onsite, I think a socially distanced Parliament with one staff member required to come in, is actually worth it."

He would be the only MP from the party there, he said, and he would not be required to travel.

National leader Judith Collins would be required to fly down to attend, however. She said MPs were essential workers, and defended flying from Auckland to Wellington.

"I would much rather be home with my family, I would much rather that. And they would rather I was home with them. But why should I expect police officers, people who stack shelves in supermarkets, people who work in the airlines, to go and do their jobs ... and I'd rather stay at home. that's actually not what we expect from our leaders.

She said the government had steadfastly refused the opportunity to bring in the Epidemic Response Committee.

"That would have avoided any of this. As for the Zoom Parliament, never been tested here. The government has had 18 months, and [Speaker] Trevor Mallard had 18 months to work out how that would work. We're looking at it and we don't think that's going to bring the scrutiny.

"Actually just shutting down scrutiny because the government doesn't want to answer questions, that's not good enough for the people of New Zealand.

Seymour said the plane would have flown with or without her, and her presence was required for democracy.

"I don't think we're taking democracy seriously if we think that plane should fly with government workers but the elected member of the opposition can't be among them to contribute to democracy and accountability," Seymour said.

Ardern was being grossly hypocritical, he said.

"If she was really worried about safety she wouldn't show up tomorrow, she would cancel her in-person press conferences ... and then she'd ground all the planes.

"She's not doing any of that, nor is she prepared to reinstate the Epidemic Response Committee ... it's hypocritical and frankly despicable."

Virtual Parliament would have meant 'the same if not more' scrutiny - Ardern

Ardern said it was "totally incorrect" to say Parliament going ahead showed it was in fact safe. She said she felt she was required to bring it back because of the opposition's refusal to hold it virtually.

"My much bigger preference was that we get consensus but was one of those situations where given there's no consensus I feel I have no choice."

She said a virtual parliament would have allowed the opposition to access any minister, to make statements and ask questions.

"Some would say a greater level of accountability even than a general question time offers, but unfortunately that was rejected by the opposition."

Her preference would have been for a virtual parliament.

"It does the same if not more than an in-person version of the debating chamber. Select Committees can still meet ... all of the other business of Parliament can continue, the only thing we're missing is question time, and my view is we could do that safely, virtually."

Shaw said the arguments for having Parliament in person did not hold water.

"I would suggest that 'tactile' is the last thing that you want in a pandemic and that the virtual option that had been presented was actually going to have a higher level of scrutiny than the version they are advocating for."

He said more questions were asked of government ministers at select committees about the Covid-19 Response last week than in the entirety of the Epidemic Response Committee held last year.

"We had much greater accountability from government ministers last week than we had even during the pandemic breakout last year and we think that's going to be far more effective than an in-person Parliament which is stripped down ... will be a comparatively weak format."

The comparison with the daily media briefings was not accurate either, he said.

"The two of them are quite different. They're talking about travelling to Wellington, the journalists who are present are here in Wellington, the format is completely different and the whole idea here is to minimise the potential connection between bubbles. We think that adding to the problem is unhelpful."

Seymour said question time was an institution that had evolved over centuries and he did not believe a substitute over Zoom was credible.

"We're all highly committed to the health and safety for the team of five million. The inconsistent and political way the prime minister has tried to apply the standards through this whole debacle are absolutely despicable."

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